Interview: ‘From an General Safety Point of View, There is not a Huge Concern [About Flooding at Yongbyon]’

The Korean peninsula has been hit by record-breaking precipitation, with state-run Korean Main News Company (KCNA) reporting last week that floods had ruined 40,000 hectares (154 square miles) of farmland, 16,680 houses, and 630 other buildings all over the nation.

Commercial satellite imagery of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, the nation’s primary nuclear center, captured the attention of analysts at 38 North, a North-Korea analysis website moneyed by the Washington-based Stimson Center.

38 North reported that although the five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon does not appear to have actually been recently operating, “damage to the pumps and piping within the pump houses provides the most significant vulnerability to the reactors.”

“If the reactors were running, for circumstances, the inability to cool them would need them to be shut down,” the report stated.

RFA’s Korean Service Thursday talked to Olli Heinonen, former Deputy Director-General for Safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Firm (IAEA), and current prominent fellow with the Stimson Center’s 38 North program.

He talked about the potential damage that the flooding might cause to Yongbyon and the Pyongsan uranium mine, another flooded center. The interview has actually been modified for length and clearness.

A  view  of  the  Yongbyon  Nuclear  Scientific  Research  Center  on  the  bank  of  the  Kuryong  River  in  Yongbyon,  North  Korea,  July  22,  2020.  By  August  6,  2020  the  location  had  ended up being  flooded.

A view of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center on the bank of the Kuryong River in Yongbyon, North Korea, July 22, 2020. By August 6, 2020 the location had ended up being flooded.
Airbus Defence & Area and 38 North/Pleiades via Reuters

RFA: It has actually been reported that the North Korean nuclear facility in Yongbyon was impacted by the recent flooding. Do we have a major disaster on our hands?

Heinonen: As you understand, I have been a number of times to Yongbyon, and I have likewise been there during flooding, and in fact this flooding is about as bad as I think I saw when I was there. I believe the first big flood I saw there, maybe it was in 1992, that long earlier.

So I believe my first reaction to these images, which likewise come from the company which I now serve, the Stimson Center, … North Korea is aware of this flooding, they put on’t come as a surprise, and they have actually taken some countermeasures in the design of these nuclear facilities to conquered any difficulties. This is the very first point, and I’ll return to it quickly.

The 2nd thing we requirement to keep in our mind is actually that these facilities are virtually not operating now. So when you appearance at the satellite image survey, the five-megawatt reactor doesn’t run, the speculative light-water reactor is under building and construction, the processing plant is far away from the river, but it still needs water in order to keep it.

Same concern the uranium enrichment part, they need some water but the real operation, we are not so sure how much it’s operating now. And then there are some other setups that use radioactive product. Not nuclear material, but [they conduct] radioactive experiments for medical, scientific and other purposes.

I wear’t think this flooding has had much of an impact on those, so from an general security point of view, there is not a substantial issue for the time being.

The next question: Has this flooding triggered damage to the devices there?

I wear’t think there is any huge damage for the following factors:

Let’s appearance now at the experimental light-water reactor and the five-megawatt reactor. I believe that they can go for a while without having much water in utilize, or taken from the river, so they can stop the pumps… In addition to that, these kinds of installations, when they operate, they have a kind of filtering system in the front of the piping that takes the water. So it will also screen away some of the dirt, so if they requirement to briefly take some water I think they can maybe manage it.

But certainly under present scenarios, you can not go to long-lasting operations till the water level comes down, and until the front of these water-taking locations are cleaned and put back in complete order.

So this is my take on this, and I have seen them also designing and taking part in a reactor that was constructed in Syria. And I was at that point in the IAEA and we have actually composed some Syria reports about the water for that reactor…and it was I think, a relatively typical commercial plan for the water to be taken from the river, and how this system was made in such a way that it can manage likewise flooding.

Now we see that the consumption structure or the pump home in Yongbyon, especially for the reactor, is surrounded by water, however I wear’t think that it makes a huge damage on that due to the fact that at least in Syria we saw that the electronic devices part was fairly well protected.

Then I also see that the individuals have not looked at the other water intake places. They are all concentrated just on water intake for the five-megawatt reactor and the experimental reactor.

On the other side of the river is a pump house which probably takes water to the river… and the situation there is quite much the same as for the reactor, so there is a lot of water around the pump house… so that’s where we are.

So I put on’t think that there is any significant situation. They requirement to do some repairing, but it’s not extremely likely that they are all damaged.

There is one thing that people likewise need to remember. The construction of the buildings, in North Korea, their standards are not that advanced as you and I have become used to.

For example when it rains a lot, in some centers, water can get to the cellar because of the bad isolation in the basement. So that’s another thing that is most likely taking place in some of the centers. We’re just not seeing it because satellite images will not program it.

What kind of damage has that triggered? It’s tough to say. A lot of likely they simply requirement to pump some water away and tidy the properties, the cellars, and the lower levels of those buildings.

But once again, I wear’t think it will stop the operation of those centers, considering that it didn’t do anything in the 1990 s, so why would it do that today?

RFA: What is the danger of flooding at the Pyongsan uranium mine?

Heinonen: When you do the uranium mining, you usage a lot of water to tidy the ore, which in this case is anthracite coal in Pyongsan. So you have to clean it, you have to liquify it, and then when you do this cleaning and this dissolution, you recover uranium, which is fine, however the exact same time you leave a lot of radioactive waste like radium, thorium, and then both of those, they are radioactive materials, so at one point in time, they decay to radon, which is a gas.

So, when you have these huge ponds where the wastewater goes, we wear’t understand how well they are developed and how they deal hen there is a huge rain—whether the rain simply falls into these open ponds, or whether they overflow and then this radioactive waste gets to the environment, groundwater, and then ultimately either to the river, or to the drinking water of the people.

If that takes place, then it has an effect.

Also, we put on’t understand how well these ponds are actually made. In regular cases, really they are like substantial swimming pools. So they are not such that there is a pond or lake on a typical rice paddy or regular ground. You need to isolate this waste liquid from the rest of the ground water.

Since we wear’t know how they have done that, I think that’s why when we appearance at this heavy rain, which was likewise in the Pyongsan location, that may be a matter of issue.

There is a possibility that water might overflow and get to the environment.

I’m not so worried about the milling center itself, the one that takes the ore and separates uranium there, since they are chemical procedures and they occur in piping and vessels and numerous tanks, so it should not effect the operations of those.

But the waste containment ponds are a different story. When you appearance at the image on the website, there are in fact 2 such ponds. One is near the actual mine, up there on the mountain, and then there is a pipeline that [connects with the] milling center, and then the liquids, which are waste from that milling center, they cross the river in another pipeline and go to a pond over there.

So those 2 ponds, one on the other side of the river and one up there on the mountain, I believe, might have some dangers when there is such a heavy rain as we have seen in the last couple of weeks.

Reported by Sangmin Lee for RFA’s Korean Service.


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